The Humanities Are "Useless"—And That’s Okay
One of the worst parts of 21st century productivity culture is the way it places so little emphasis on having fun. I hate-follow a bunch of self-styled internet writing gurus on Twitter, and I’m continually amazed by the way they churn our reason after reason you should start writing—boost your career! sharpen your thinking! spread your ideas!—without ever engaging with the most obvious one: you might enjoy yourself.
Sure, those other things happen, sometimes, if you’re lucky. My writing has helped my career, I suppose, but only a little, and pretty inefficiently. I’ve sharpened my thinking on some topics, but on others I’ve only made myself more confused. There’s this adage that you write to figure out what you think, but usually the more I write about a topic the less certain I end up about it. It’s easy to have strident opinions until you start to pull at them a little. Sometimes I wonder how anyone holds any strong beliefs at all.
And spreading my ideas? Sure, maybe, I guess. Don’t get me wrong—I’d be disappointed if I learned that none of my ideas ever influenced anyone even a little bit. But I suspect that most writers, if they’re honest, will admit that they didn’t get into this racket to change the world with the power of their words. A vocation as idiosyncratic and personal as this one demands a more idiosyncratic and personal motive. Besides, most of us started to like this kind of thing when we were too young to realize it could have any practical impact whatsoever.
The truth is, writing, like creating art of any kind, is a bit of an indulgence. There’s nothing wrong with doing it, of course, but the proper attitude towards it contains just a hint of embarrassment. Straining too deeply for any kind of practical justification is just a way of denying this inherent truth.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because, once again, the supposed decline of the humanities is in the news. Every few years, there’s a spate of articles about how the share of students graduating with humanities degrees has reached a record low, and every few years after that, a new record is reached that’s even lower. The latest cause for hand-wringing? Last year, after 60+ straight years of decline, all humanities degrees combined ended up roughly tied with computer science:
Remember watching Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primary debates? It was hard not to root for him a little, even though he was acting like a madman and his opponents were being (relatively) reasonable. The rest of them just seemed like such… losers. Either they’d flail around for logical arguments, failing to realize or refusing to believe that the game had changed and logical argument was no longer relevant, or else they’d futilely try to engage Trump on his terms (Marco Rubio’s pathetic “small hands” thing), deluding themselves into thinking they were fighting back when really they were just ceding to his dominance.
That’s kind of how I feel watching the humanities’ defenders today. I know I should be on their side—I am on their side—but I can’t help but shake my head at the defenses they choose. They know they can’t lay claim to the most valuable justification a field of study can have today: that it’ll make you rich, or at least get you a decent job. So they grasp desperately for some other logical reason to exist. They argue that studying the humanities boosts your “critical thinking” skills, whatever those are. Or else they claim that studying them makes you a better person, by somehow engendering empathy.
But these arguments never convince anyone, probably because even their most ardent proponents clearly don’t believe them. And why should they? Sure, I buy that studying literature or history helps with critical thinking, but only because studying anything intensely probably has that effect. And boosting empathy? That term isn’t even clearly-defined enough to be a falsifiable claim, but even if it were, the claim hardly passes the sniff test. After all, many of the 20th century’s greatest monsters were artists: Mao (poet), Mussolini (novelist), Stalin (poet), and Hitler (painter).
I guarantee you that none of the humanities professors making these arguments chose their professions because they wanted to improve their critical thinking skills or boost their empathy. You study literature or philosophy or history or poetry because you have a love for the field, a love that defies logic.
That’s why the only viable defense of the humanities is once that embraces their uselessness. They can’t be justified in practical terms—but neither can many of the best things in life. In fact, one could argue that the definition of a life well-lived is one whose time isn’t fully spent on practical pursuits.
In even accepting that they need such a justification to exist, humanities departments are accepting their opponents’ terms of engagement and, in doing so, preordaining their defeat. If the battle is over usefulness, art and literature will lose every time.
It’s a marker of the progress human society has made that not every activity has to be “useful” in a clearly-identifiable way. We should fund the humanities simply because these things are good for their own sake. And if someone doesn’t believe that, they’re hardly going to be swayed by the vague assertion that these things somehow teach empathy.
“Every writer, every poet, every musician was against the Vietnam War. And I have said that it’s like a laser beam, you know, where all the beams of light are aimed in one direction, so all art, the total art world, and also a whole lot of other decent people, would form this laser beam, everybody aimed at the Vietnam War to stop it. And the power of this weapon turned out to be that of a custard pie, two feet in diameter, dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”
——Kurt Vonnegut on the power of words